Coach Ken Whisenhunt (left) will be counting on O'Brien Schofield (right) to help the linebacking corps this season for the Cards.
All O'Brien Schofield had facing him coming into the NFL – at least, to fulfill the potential on which the Cardinals were counting – was a change in position and a devastating knee injury.
Other than that …
The hill for Schofield to climb was not simple by any means. But he did accomplish both, first rehabbing the shredded knee after tearing ligaments during practice for the Senior Bowl in January, 2010, and then slowly getting comfortable moving from defensive end to linebacker as a rookie even though he had no significant on-field practice time (because of the knee) to learn.
Schofield still notched a couple of sacks after he began to play in games following an injury to Joey Porter, and he'll be at the epicenter of a linebackers corps in transition in 2011. Veterans Porter and Clark Haggans were the 2010 starters on the outside. On the inside, Paris Lenon was steady all season while Daryl Washington and Gerald Hayes split time.
Much could change. Schofield will get a chance to unseat Porter, who has a hefty salary of more than $5 million for 2011 and who's status will be uncertain for a second Cards' season. Will Davis, coming off a foot injury, will try to beat out Haggans. Draft pick Sam Acho will attempt to do the same thing Schofield did, make the move from college defensive end to linebacker.
At the inside spots, much is to be determined. Hayes isn't expected to return. Lenon was signed to give Washington time to grow – both are similar players – but instead ended up playing alongside Washington much of 2010. The Cards, who would be expected to delve into free agency (once the labor situation is settled) for both outside and inside candidates, might go after a thumper-type for strongside inside to replace Hayes. Sixth-round pick Quan Sturdivant also could find his way into the mix, while holdover inside man Reggie Walker may be fighting for a roster spot.
In the Cards' 3-4 defensive alignment, their outside linebackers are the main component in the pass rush, which is why Schofield's development becomes crucial.
"You talk about the right kind of guys to be on your football team, the ones that will study," coach Ken Whisenhunt said of Schofield after the recent draft. "It's very, very difficult what he did. To have not played a snap, come in here and practice for a couple weeks and then be playing means he had to put a lot of time and effort into preparing. That's what we really think is going to give him a chance."
The Cards are counting on young players like Schofield and Washington to grow and grow quickly. There is a hole in the move from veterans, after 2009 second-round pick Cody Brown didn't even make it to a second season before being released. The impact of Acho and Sturdivant will be affected by a lack of an offseason.
But if Schofield can quickly make strides – and frankly, exceed realistic expectations at this point – the Cardinals will be in a much better place at a position they need to upgrade in 2011.
KEY PLAYER IN 2011: Daryl Washington. While Schofield is important, he remains a fourth-round pick who is learning. Washington not only started most of 2010 but as a second-round pick, he was drafted to be the heir apparent to Karlos Dansby. His 2010 work hopefully puts him in a good spot to work toward potential stardom going forward.
CONSIDER THIS: The talk will be about Porter and his salary and what happens with his roster spot, but fellow vet Haggans should stick around. His work ethic is unparalleled – something that remains invaluable in the locker room -- and he's the type who wouldn't have a problem fitting into a reserve role if that's what he was asked to do.
ROSTER CHANGE CHANCES ON 1-10 SCALE: About an 8. Along with quarterback and offensive line, it would be a surprise if the Cards didn't seriously look at linebacker possibilities once free agency is allowed to begin.
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